Freshman Graham dials up the outside game Air Force has been waiting for

By Brent Briggeman Updated: December 7, 2013 at 7:16 pm • Published: December 7, 2013 | 7:15 pm 0
photo - Hayden Graham throws in the ball during the second half of a game against South Dakota at the Air Force Academy on Thursday, December 5, 2013..(The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
Hayden Graham throws in the ball during the second half of a game against South Dakota at the Air Force Academy on Thursday, December 5, 2013..(The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

Hayden Graham's long-distance jumper had been an asset for Air Force long before he finally showed it in a game.

Now, everyone else is in on the little secret.

"Whenever we do scout team, he's always the shooter," junior Max Yon said of his freshman teammate. "He can stretch the 3-ball."

Graham knocked down three second-half 3s as the Falcons came from behind to beat South Dakota on Thursday. The first shot came early in the second half and gave Air Force its first lead since falling behind early by 13 points. The second again put the Falcons ahead after the Coyotes had inched back in front. The third was the biggest of all, a jumper over a pair of defenders to extend an 81-80 Air Force advantage with 2:20 remaining. South Dakota never again got as close as four points as the Falcons won 94-86.

That second half also saw Graham provide what may hold up as the assist of the year for coach Dave Pilipovich's team. With 2 seconds left on the shot clock, Graham lobbed an inbound pass from midcourt perfectly near the rim for a leaping point guard Tre' Coggins to put in behind a stunned South Dakota defense.

All of this came in Graham's second career game.

"It was special," said the freshman from Austin, Texas. "I hadn't really been given the opportunity, but coach P just trusted me and I took advantage of what he gave me. My teammates helped me with my confidence and gave me open looks."

Knee injuries prevented Graham from earning that opportunity prior to Thursday. He played in just 10 games last year at the prep school after an issue with the patella tendon in his left knee. He then "tweaked" his right knee in an early practice this season.

His debut finally came against Colorado last week, a game in which he saw 15 mostly quiet minutes. But there was nothing quiet about his breakout performance on Thursday.

It's perhaps no coincidence that once Graham asserted himself Air Force broke out for the most points (62) it had scored in a half since 1999.

"He's a real quiet guy, but I think once he starts getting involved a little more we're going to see him start to open up," Yon said. "That's going to be huge, because then his game is going to let loose."

Graham is part of a large freshman class that was recruited during the end of the Jeff Reynolds era. Not all stayed on during the transition to Pilipovich, so this large class - it's now down to seven after Austin Flues recently decided to leave the team but remain at the academy - has long been a question mark.

Graham and his classmates have been asked to provide a large number of minutes this season, particularly with junior captains Kamryn Williams and DeLovell Earls missing so much time with injuries. Aside from a few flashes from Darrus Parker, who earned a starting role with his physical play inside, those minutes have largely been served in supporting roles. Despite combining for more than 25 percent of Air Force's minutes, the class has provided just 16.7 percent of the scoring.

On Thursday it looked like nobody in the group has the upside of the 6-foot-6 Graham, who resembles a baby-faced Reggie Miller. Sort of plays like him, too.

"He's one that we think can give us some defensive stops because he's long and wiry," Pilipovich said. "Plus offensively he's a slasher and he can make open 3s."

But ...

"We really haven't seen what he can do because he hasn't been out there a lot," Pilipovich added. "So he really hasn't learned the system. There were times (against South Dakota) where he wasn't in the right spot, but it was camouflaged because we made the next play."

Graham, who is a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point range in his brief career, has been armed with the shooting skills for some time. After his breakout game, he's added that one dimension freshmen sometimes take a while to acquire.

"This gives me all the confidence in the world," he said. "And just to know that the coaches trust me and believe in me and I earned their respect. All I can try to do it keep it up, keep working hard and hope they keep trusting me."

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